MP3 Via DVD Page 2

RCA RC6001
It's no surprise that Thomson Multimedia, licensor of the MP3 format, offers MP3 compatibility in several flavors, including a five-disc changer and a DVD/VHS combi. The RCA RC6001 ($269) is a single-disc progressive-scan model with an unusually attractive mirrored, blue fluorescent display.

The RC6001 plays MP3s through both its digital and analog outputs. My review unit was shipped with the digital outs switched off, but a simple menu command activated them. Digital output is a significant plus in a world where most systems connect the DVD player and Dolby Digital receiver with a single digital cable, so there's no need to add a separate pair of analog interconnects to enjoy MP3s. As I mentioned earlier, using a digital connection also eliminates two signal-polluting conversions.

Pop an MP3-stuffed CD-R into the RC6001's silver drawer, and another pleasant surprise awaits. The player immediately begins playing audio files without waiting for you to hit the cute, blue-backlit play button. CDs work the same way.

RCA's onscreen MP3 display has slightly more-attractive graphics compared with the JVC's bare-bones look. Unfortunately, the display also has a draconian 11-character limit, and the world is full of song titles longer than 11 characters. Given both the instant-play feature and the character limit, the best way to use this player is to number and burn tracks in your preferred playback order and let the RC6001 do the rest. (It worked for me.)

The RC6001 offers a list of playback options, including standard track play, track repeat, folder play, folder repeat, and random. It also allows fast scanning with sound at twice the normal speed. Many of these conveniences were absent from the other players.

While playback of tracks encoded at 128 or 160 kbps sounded perfectly normal, tracks encoded at 96 kbps were slightly marred by an audible artifact that sounded like a person gargling. I burned some additional CD-Rs with different music to verify what I was hearing. However, in all fairness, I must note that anyone who rips MP3s at 96 kbps is not terribly interested in sound quality.

Integra DPS-5.2

This single-play progressive-scan model earns its $400 price tag with a handful of extras that enhance both performance and convenience. It was the only model I reviewed with 192-kilohertz digital-to-analog converters. It's also got an RS-232 serial port, which enables it to communicate with a touchscreen or other custom-installed interface. As I uncrated the simple black box, I couldn't help but notice that it was the only model to arrive with a heavy-duty detachable extension cord (versus the JVC's lighter detachable cord and the RCA's nondetachable cord).

The first thing I checked was the digital output. It worked. Even better, the player could automatically navigate folders. When I hit play, it gave me not only the 96-kbps track but the other two, even though they were in folders. The Integra was also the only player to display file names on its front-panel display, but file names are subject to an eight-character limit on both the front-panel and onscreen displays.

Thanks to the automatic folder navigation and the front-panel display, this is the only player in this group that you can operate without a video display, as long as you just want to play everything through sequentially. If you want to program tracks using a separate menu provided for that purpose, then you'll need a display. A simple but snazzy screensaver, consisting of rolling horizontal color bars, operates when the player is at rest. The Integra's eight-character limit was the most severe of the three players tested. On the other hand, it had neither the JVC's analog-out limitation nor the RCA's 96-kbps quirk.

mp3PRO Waits in the Wings
Is MP3 compatibility the last step in the DVD player's fast-moving evolution? Not necessarily. Thomson has already unveiled a new and improved mp3PRO format that keeps high frequencies more or less intact even at the modest data rate of 96 kbps (you can download the software at Luckily, mp3PRO has a limited degree of backwards-compatibility with the hardware and software that support regular MP3. The files play, but at a lower level of quality. Chips that support mp3PRO are now on the drawing board. Compatible DVD players are likely to follow, but none have been announced.

In other news, Microsoft recently announced a deal in which 90 percent of the DVD-player chipmakers will include compatibility with the Windows Audio Player. Also, the birth of music-industry-approved subscription services will bring compressed-audio formats with more restrictions than the free and easy MP3 format. Whether these restricted formats will find their way into DVD players is a dubious proposition. Still, it's fair to say that the penetration of compressed-audio formats into home theater systems isn't over. In fact, it's just begun.

* Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater, which is now available through (or 800/839-8640).

DPS-5.2 Single-Disc DVD Player $400
(201) 785-2600
Dealer Locator Code ITG

XV-FA95GD Seven-Disc DVD Changer $500
(800) 252-5722
Dealer Locator Code JVC

RC6001 Single-Disc DVD Player $269
(800) 336-1900
Dealer Locator Code RCA